|The Transformation Story Archive||The Silver Dawn|
The Silver Cloud
I was met at the edge of the containment area by two men in black military fatigues who nodded a greeting. The older one was taller with a thick head of silver hair combed back and had an unmistakable air of authority, the shorter one following a respectful distance behind as they approached.
"Mister Shannon, good to have you here."
"General." His grip was firm when we shook hands and for once I wondered if he really was happy having me around on an investigation. The good General Laforge and I had our differences in the past but we both knew that we had our own jobs to do.
"This is Captain Hanes." I nodded toward the junior officer. He looked like he was fighting a scowl but I dismissed it immediately. If he had a problem with the non- military personnel he had to deal with he would be off the project very quickly. The nature of our business made any form of rivalry a danger that had to be eliminated.
The general led me through the security cordon and into an elevator. He tapped a code into the keypad and we began to descend. I examined the elevator and spotted the hidden security camera and the gas outlets, impressive security for what was supposed to be a simple computer manufacturer. The car was also descending deeper than a normal building should go, another hint that everything was not as it should be.
We stopped and stepped out into what looked to be a Level Four biological containment facility. Airtight doors and thick glass observation windows surrounded us and I could see people in white and gray-green environment suits moving in what was clearly the main lab. Several were clustered in a small group and when one moved I saw what remained of another suit lying on the floor. The red mess that leaked through the tears onto a pool on the floor was clearly what was left of a body.
"That the victim?"
"Doctor Daniel Weinberg," Laforge confirmed. "Captain, please fill in Mister Shannon."
"Doctor Weinberg was an expert in nanotechnology," Hanes said, reading from a clipboard. "Age thirty-six, single, docterates in computer science and electrical engineering from Stanford, an associate professor at MIT for five years before Adcomptek hired him for a very large salary."
"Nothing unusual there," I said, watching as Weinberg's remains were collected and placed in a bag. "What was he working on?"
"The construction of computer chips using nanomachines to build it molecule by molecule. There had been some minor success but he was several years away from a useful process."
"Who was funding this?"
"Originally it was DARPA. Since 1993 it was NSA. Their experts saw some use in the process for creating specifically designed unique chips for cryptology." Hanes flipped the board closed.
I indicated the cameras. "Any video?"
"Yes. Upstairs in the control room."
"Let's take a look."
Weinberg was leaning over the table peering through a microscope when the audio pickups recorded his scream. He fell backwards and started to roll around on the floor, his thrashing causing equipment to be scattered and thrown around the room. From one section of his suit a cloud seemed to emerge and envelope the body so it seemed indistinct and then appeared to dissipate leaving the chunks of meat that were the former Doctor Dan.
"This it?" I asked.
Laforge nodded. "Any thoughts?"
"A few. Now what was the other thing you wanted me to see?"
Down the hall we stood outside another containment facility this one obviously set up by our advance team and clearly designed for biological alerts. Hanes turned on one of the monitors on the table in front of us and I saw a scene relayed from one of the video cameras placed strategically around the room, this one directly above the examination table and looking down through the transparent plastic of the isolation cell that was on it. My breath caught for a minute. The woman stretched out in the isolation cell was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. She was tall with long legs and flawless skin. Long blonde hair surrounded her head like a halo and she had a pair of impossibly shaped breasts that retained their shape even while she was prone. I turned toward Laforge and raised an eyebrow.
He handed me a personnel file. The picture clipped to the sheets was that of a mousy-looking woman in her early thirties with unkept brown hair and oversized glasses. Doctor Elizabeth Walker, I read. A computer scientist and Weinberg's frequent collaborator. I looked at the picture and then the monitor and then the picture again. There was the hint of similarity in the features.
"Let me guess. You're going to tell me that the woman on the table is Doctor Walker?"
"We think so. Walker was seen entering her office a few minutes before the apparent time of Weinberg's incident. We can account for every second over the next ten minutes and no one saw her leave or anyone else entering. When they discovered Weinberg's body they tried to find her and found this person, naked, on the floor of her office."
"No other way in or out?"
"Maybe no one noticed someone going in or out? It happens all the time in an office."
I put my arm around Hanes's shoulders and turned him toward the window. "Captain," I said, "if someone who looked like that walked by you would you notice?"
If he had been white he would have blushed. As it was he merely shook off my arm and looked at me angrily.
"I get the point," he said coldly.
I turned back to the general. "Is there any way to be sure who she is?"
"We're doing DNA typing now. The fingerprints are similar but there are differences. Our expert says they look distorted."
"That would fit," I muttered. "I assume they've been doing a physical exam?"
Leforge pulled a cellular phone out of his pocket and pressed a key. "Roach, window."
One of the figures inside the containment room turned and approached the window. I could see a tired looking face through the heavy plastic of his face shield and he waved acknowledgment. He picked up a microphone near the window.
"Your report, Commander."
"The subject is still unconscious but all vital signs are strong. This is a strange one, sir."
"Sir, I'd like to finish the exam first." Laforge looked at me and I nodded. "Very well, Commander."
An hour later Commander Roach was in front of a computer presenting his results. His olive drab t-shirt was stained from the exertion of being in the airtight and heavy environment suit and he clearly wanted to get some rest.
"The subject appears to be approximately in her early to mid-twenties. Five feet ten inches in height, one hundred and fifty pounds, her hair is natural blonde and she has blue eyes."
I was startled. She did not look like she weighed anything near 150 pounds. "What were the differences you mentioned?"
Roach typed some commands into the computer and a graphic image of her body appeared. "The first thing I want you to see are these dense filaments. As far as we can determine they are present through her muscles and contract just like muscle fiber but are significantly stronger."
He nodded. "I think so. A similar type of fiber that doesn't contract forms a web-like network over her abdominal cavity and her breasts. It would make her difficult to injure and explains the...uh...unique shape of her breasts."
"How much does it reinforce the muscles?"
"I can't really say. Until she's conscious and we can perform some tests I'm estimating twenty to thirty percent more strength to the muscle."
I frowned. "Wouldn't that be dangerous to her tendons and attachment points?"
"The fibers wrap around the tendon and bone itself. Take a look at these scans of her bones. The image on the left is a typical normal humerus. The one on the right is hers. Notice the increased density. Her bones have essentially been built to make them stronger and able to take the stress of the increased strength. That's why I think the strength increase is more than thirty percent. The bones can handle a lot more than that."
"No. We're doing some more tests now but I can tell you her cardiopulmonary system is better than any I've ever seen and I've seen some outstanding ones. Not a flaw on her anywhere. Oh, and she's still a virgin."
I turned to Laforge. "I'd suggest a microscopic examination of the clean room where Weinberg bought it and Walker's office. I mean microscopic. And we'll have to transport our friend in there to the containment lab in the Hole."
"Done. What are we looking for?"
"Robots, general." He looked at me strangely but made no comment as he picked up the phone.
The Air Force's Groom Lake facility and Area 51 receive so much attention because they are so easily identifiable, as the USAF, bless their souls, learned to their chagrin. The denials that the place actually existed made the whole situation a running gag in the government and the Air Force was lambasted for trying to pretend the place didn't exist.
What they were not aware of was that the super top secret unit at Area 51 consisted of two lieutenants and a captain who took great pride in the number of stories they generated about the base. I understood they even had a betting pool with the winner being the one who created the silliest story that was picked up by the UFO community the previous month. This exercise in creative public relations attracted all the attention and kept the heat off the places that were really doing the James Bond/Star Trek routine. Like my group.
Fort Wells, New Jersey was located in the Pine Barrens and was moderately insulated but very much in the public eye. A sacrifice to the peace dividend, the base had closed in 1990 but reopened under the administration of the Joint Chiefs to act as a military museum. Tourists strolled along the runways with the displays of retired B-52s, transports and experimental lifting body rocket planes, check out M-60s and captured Soviet equipment and get their pictures taken with tour guides dressed in military fatigues who were chosen for their photogenic qualities. By far the best-known exhibit was the bomb shelter complex that had been built during the '50s and the crowds marveled at the massive architecture of a place designed to survive a nuclear attack. They left impressed.
They also left unaware that one hundred feet below them was a more modern and vastly larger complex that had no official name but was called The Black Hole. Everything went in and nothing came out under its own power. Self- contained and self-sufficient, the Hole was the home of Project Event Horizon. We never heard any reports that hinted at our existence which was a good thing because what we did was handle particularly nasty incidents that no one wanted to reach the public or even the government.
And this was a nasty incident. A feeling that was only confirmed when I saw an image of something that had been found in Walker's office. It was a microscopic assemblage of molecules that resembled an artificial crab. It was a robot.
And I was scared.
"So why won't these nanorobots do the same thing to someone else?" Laforge asked.
"Evolution," I replied. "When you set these things loose they begin to act like living organisms. If they reproduce there is the possibility for error, a mutation. Given enough time these little beggars will evolve and there is no way to control that. The only way is to have centralized manufacturing where each is built according to an unchanging prototype and avoid them reproducing at all or have some kind of universal overseer to ensure quality control."
"What about our patient?"
I pulled out an x-ray. "See that? It looks like a growth on her lower spine but has a metallic composition. My guess is that is the equivalent of a gland that produces the robots in her system as required."
"So she's not contagious?"
"All the tests have been negative. It seems her robots are programmed to respond only to her DNA, otherwise they become inert. They have demonstrated only housekeeping functions, not radical alteration like has been done to her. Whatever caused her physiological change I can guarantee it was not the beasties running around inside her. She agrees with my assessment."
Laforge looked at me. "She agrees?"
"Doctor Walker worked as close as anyone did to Weinberg," I pointed out. "That makes her one of the few experts on the nanotechnology he was using and as such is a valuable resource that I am exploiting."
The general gazed at me with a sceptical eye and nodded. "Just make sure it's only her knowledge that you're exploiting."
She was sitting on the edge of the bed and appeared surprised when I walked in without the environmental suit or an air pack.
"I can leave now?"
"That depends on where you want to go," I replied.
"Bermuda is nice this time of year," she mused.
"I didn't think so." She sighed and looked around. "Can I at least see something else besides this prison cell?"
I tossed her the bundle I was carrying and she unfolded the simple blue jumpsuit in surprise. "You have the run of the facility, as long as you're escorted."
"Thank you. Um, if you don't mind...?"
I turned my back, biting back a remark about seeing her naked for days on end. What she had been through, whatever it was, had been traumatic enough without smartass comments reminding her of how vulnerable she had been. While I waited I glanced at Roach's follow-up physicals. As he had suspected her strength was actually fifty percent greater than someone else of similar muscle size, her cardiopulmonary system made a decathelete look like a couch potato and her reflexes were a shade faster than they should have been. I flipped the pages quickly. Wounds closed and healed very fast, probably due to her microscopic custodians sealing them quickly. Her senses seemed normal; perfect but within human norms.
I turned and indulged myself looking at her for a moment. The jumpsuit did nothing to conceal her inhuman figure and in fact set it off very well. She had found the barrettes I had placed in the folded suit and had her hair pulled back. Without it framing her face she looked more like a normal albeit outstandingly gorgeous model and less like a stripped at some place with a two drink minimum.
I offered her my arm and to my surprise she took it.
"What a gentleman," she said in mocking tones.
"Old habits are hard to break," I said and escorted her out of the containment she had been living in for a week.
The Black Hole is impressive even to those of us who had worked in it for years so it was stunning for someone seeing it for the first time. The massive vaulted roof covered an area larger than most stadiums and she stared in amazement at the equipment and displays. She was attracting a great deal of attention but seemed oblivious to it as she wandered from work area to work area and stuck her head in to see what was happening.
"Why is security so lax?"
"The project has only a small group working on it and everyone is essentially on every case so keeping secrets is a waste of time. Now I have to put you to work. Doctor? Doctor?"
She was staring at a video terminal. I moved beside her and she turned to me in absolute terror. The screen was black except for one line of white text that kept blinking on and off. I read it and picked up the phone beside the computer.
"This is Shannon. I want a Level Five alert now. Inform the general I will meet him immediately."
The screen was still blinking its message when I guided Dr. Walker away.
>HOW DO YOU LIKE BEING A SLUT, BITCH?
Laforge put down the telephone and rubbed his eyes. "No one has been in or out in the last six hours. There's nothing wrong with the computer and no signs of entry."
"What caused the message?"
Dino Scarpelli, the project's resident hacker, tossed a readout on the table. "Phosphor burn. Someone cranked up the power on the electron gun to burn the message into the screen and then throttled back so when one of our normal screen savers was on that message was the only thing that was recognizable. Brilliant idea and impossible to do over a computer."
"Explain," Leforge ordered.
"The power setting of the electron gun is built in, see? You can't alter it without ripping the monitor apart and changing some of the components. And before you ask we did rip it apart and there is no sign of tampering."
"Who was the last person on that station?"
"O'Brien. She said there were no problems. I've got her logging out three minutes before the alert was given."
Laforge turned to the woman who sat shivering beside me. "Doctor Walker, why would anyone give you a message like that. Come to think of it, how do you know it was for you?"
She looked up, terrified. "Since the...change...I've been experiencing intense physical reaction when I'm near someone. Man, woman, it doesn't matter. I've been fighting it but you could probably record the effects."
I looked up in surprise. "We have." I flipped through Roach's report. "'...subject shows sexual arousal even in comatose state. No correlation between REM and reaction but physical signs have been noted when personnel have been present'. Apparently the mere presence of someone else is enough to trigger the reaction." I had a great deal more respect for the woman after realizing the implications. By rights she should have been jumping every person she came in contact with.
"We have to assume that whoever was responsible for this also had something to do with your transformation. Based on the message they seem to be hostile."
"But this doesn't make sense, see?" Scarpelli protested. "I can see why they would want to make someone horny twenty-four hours a day for revenge. Hell, there's two of my ex-girlfriends I'd love to do it to. But why make her so drop-dead gorgeous and give her these Wonder Woman abilities?"
Laforge shot Scarpelli a dirty look but I interceded. "He's right, general, it makes no sense. What would have been crueler than making her ugly and giving her the same physical needs? Why make her beautiful and powerful?"
"I know why," she said softly. We looked at her expectantly and she hesitantly began to speak. "I've been very, well, conservative in my private life since I was in school. And I never was much of an athlete. I told someone who...raped me once that if I had been stronger I'd never have left him do it and I wouldn't be frightened of him again."
"You were raped?" The general swore viciously. He may have been content to break some laws for the good of national security but he was above all an honorable man.
Scarpelli shifted around nervously in his seat and averted his eyes. I stared into the doctor's face and thought.
"Perfect revenge," I murmured. "As strong and as good-looking and as powerful as you could be but with an irresistable urge to hit the hay with every man you meet. I'll lay you even odds that you respond to violence with a greater sexual drive so if someone tried to rape you again there would be no way you could stop yourself from allowing it."
"That is sick," Scarpelli said quietly.
"It was Weinberg, wasn't it?" I asked suddenly when the logical answer was laid out like a string of thoughts that made sense together but each being too ridiculous to be contemplated seriously. She nodded.
Scarpelli practically jumped out of his chair. "I hope you aren't thinking what I think you are thinking."
"Yes, I am."
"Would someone please inform me what you are thinking," Laforge grumbled. I took a breath and laid out the utterly stupid theory I had come up with. When I finished the general stared at me in silence for a few minutes.
"Weinberg was eaten and became that silver cloud?"
"And then he rebuilt Doctor Walker from the cells up."
"And then he somehow penetrated this facility and left a message on that computer at the exact time the doctor was looking at it."
"So what do we do about it?"
I shrugged. "If Weinberg has somehow become a cloud of robots I don't know if we can do anything. Based on Doctor Walker's experience he can do virtually anything he wants."
"So what does he want?"
"Why don't you ask me?"
We all spun around and stared at the video monitor that had come to life. The face of the late Dr. Weinberg was looking at us with an amused expression.
"Hello, gentlemen. Hello, Elizabeth. My aren't you looking lovely today." The face on the screen leered at her and she tried to hide behind me. I grabbed her hand and squeezed it to reassure her but I felt her skin get cold and clammy.
"What do you want, doctor," I asked.
"Please call me Dan. What do I want, what do I want? Well I was thinking of making a load of money off my little invention but then realized that I could literally make money so why worry about trying to earn it illegally or otherwise? Then I thought about power. Oh, I like power. It's the one thing you can't make. You have to seize it. And I will."
"So what are you going to do?"
The face looked surprise. "Mr. Shannon...may I call you Taggert? Oh right, I can call you anything I want." The giggle that emerged from the speakers was nauseating. "You said I can do anything. And I can. I can experience everything from the level of the molecule on up as big as you want. And I can change it. Omniscience and omnipotence. That is a working definition for a god, isn't it?" He giggled again. "I thought I'd prhaps create the world in my own image. My own image of paradise, I mean. And for my special friends, like Helen, my own image of hell."
"Did anyone ever tell you that you were nuts?" Scarpelli asked.
The face laughed. "How can you call a god nuts? It's a good thing I'm in a forgiving mood, Mister Scarpelli. Well, as much as I enjoyed our chat I do have to go now. See you around."
A small cloud of silver motes floated out of the monitor and across the room to the door. In a few seconds the metal seemed to dissolve and the cloud was gone through the fist-sized hole. Laforge, Scarpelli and I looked at each other while Doctor Walker curled up in her seat and stared blankly at the floor..
Laforge picked up the phone, punched in a code and looked at us. "I'm authorizing the Shiva Option."
Scarpelli swallowed. I shook my head. "It won't work. If he knew us he had access to our computers. Our security, including Shiva, is compromised."
"Maybe well get lucky," Laforge said.
"If you call getting nuked lucky," Scarpelli said.
"If he felt confident enough to talk to us..." I warned. My pessimism was confirmed when the nuclear weapons we had stored on site did not respond to the arming signals from the computer. We made our way quickly to the munitions bunker and were met by two puzzled weapons techs.
The casings of the weapons were empty, broken open like eggs and half the metal missing.. I traced my finger around the ragged hole in the concrete. "He's using it against us."
"What do you mean?"
"He's using the plutonium and uranium to power his little beasts. That's where its gone. And he's consumed the metal to make them. Millions of them. Billions."
Laforge's face went white. "I better call the White House," he croaked. I shrugged my indifference. It was unlikely to do any good now. I returned to the main labs and asked Scarpelli to call up the epidemiology programs. We ran a few trials and then sat back, stunned and depressed. Using a few estimates of Weinberg's growth capacity we came to the conclusion that in less than twenty- six hours he could be present everywhere on the planet.
God save us all.
We waited three days. Nothing happened.
It had not been a calm wait. The President and his family had quietly taken a "vacation" and were being entertained at Cheyenne Mountain. The military biowarfare response teams were on alert, the only units that might be able to detect a nanorobot infestation, not that I had any faith in their ability to do anything. Laforge had become annoyed with my crawling though the Hole and ordered me to do something.
"I don't give a damn what you do, just do something."
I checked on Elizabeth. She had been suffering more and more from the sex drive she was fighting to restrain and had decided to confine herself to a room that she had locked from the outside. Our doctors had tried everything from tranquillizers to hormone therapy without success. The machines running around inside her would not allow anything we used to get into her system. I had ordered the observation windows covered and Laforge threatened to have anyone who looked in shot but there was no necessity to look. The sounds that could be heard inside made it quite clear what she was doing and to their credit the personnel were too embarrassed to peek.
The corridors just above the reactor were my favored hideaways, usually deserted so I could pace. I thought better when I paced. I was there for thirty minutes and then decided I wanted to take a trip.
Susan Gregg had made her reputation as one of the country's best criminal profilers during a brilliant career in the FBI's Behavioral Science group. My former boss had recruited her for Event Horizon in '94 and I had worked with her a few times during my stint with Justice.
The door to Weinberg's apartment was barred with a yellow police line that I ripped and tossed aside when I entered. It was a single bedroom apartment with a large living room that overlooked the Hudson, sparsely furnished but comfortable.
"Where do you want to start?"
Susan looked around. "Bedroom." I wandered over to the computer setup near the television and flicked it on while she began to go through the other room. The initialization sequence ran through and I was faced with a bare c:\ prompt.
There didn't seem to be anything odd. A Windows directory, internet browser, a few random files and the games directory. I went into the games. They seemed to be generally strategic wargames and a few roleplaying games. I picked one at random and started it.
Gregg walked out carrying an armload of books. "Eclectic collection. Porno, psychology and games."
"Take a look at this. Ever play Dungeons and Dragons?"
"My brother did. I never did see what he saw in it." She leaned over my shoulder and examined the screen. "Rishin?"
"One of his character. These represent numbers represent characteristics. Strength, intelligence, charisma and so on. These figures are usually between three and eighteen."
"But those numbers are all over twenty-five."
"I know. He's been cheating. His characters are all over-powered." I rubbed my jaw. "But not too overpowered, not enough to make it easy."
"Has anyone here played role-playing games?" I waited and heard a nervous cough. "Captain Hanes?"
He looked embarrassed. "While I was at the Academy..."
"Nothing to be ashamed of, captain. Tell me, what single characteristic makes any game like that unlike real life?"
He thought about it for a minute and then shrugged.
"I can't think of one."
"Alright, try this. What do those games have in common with traditional games like chess and checkers?"
"Get to the point, Shannon," Laforge growled.
"Turns," Hanes blurted out.
"Exactly. Weinberg is obsessed with games. That's why he hasn't done what we've expected. He's waiting for our turn to end."
"So there's a chance we can win?" Scarpelli asked.
Gregg shook her head. "Not if he can help it. He has this need to win but to do it in a way to demonstrate his superiority."
I turned to Laforge. "If you wanted to beat an enemy, to utterly humiliate them, to demonstrate your absolute superiority, how would you do it?"
Laforge caught on quickly. "Make them feel hopeless. I'd show them that no matter what they did I had thought of it and prepared for it beforehand."
"And to make it really effective," Gregg continued, "you would let them think they were winning until the last moment when you reveal that you have always held the trump card."
"Like pool hustling," Scarpelli offered.
"Exactly," I said. "And that gives us our chance. Even the best pool hustler can lose if their opponent shoots a perfect game."
"Can we shoot a perfect game?"
"I don't know." I looked at the monitor, half expecting a silver cloud to emerge. "It would be nice to learn the rules first."
With nothing else to do for the moment I returned to my private room and changed into my gi. I sat on the carpet and assumed the lotus position, trying to relax. Center. Calm.
"Nice place you have here."
I didn't open my eyes. Weinberg's voice came from behind me to the right. That would be the internal comm station.
"Now don't ignore me. I hate it when my opponents ignore me."
"I don't want to play."
"You don't have a choice."
"Then it wouldn't be a fair fight, would it? You want competition, not unchallenged power so you need someone willing to play. I'm not." I hoped this gambit would give me something I could use.
"I'll give you a deal. You play and I'll give poor Elizabeth some relief. Fix up her hormone problem, so to speak."
"My you are greedy. Sorry, but that's it. See you around."
I sprinted to the locked room Elizabeth was sealed in and unlocked the door. She was on the floor, apparently unchanged and panting, covered in sweat. The room reeked of fluid and her clothes were scattered, lying where they had landed when she had torn them off. She struggled to her feet with my aid and began to cry. Laforge appeared and gave me a questioning look.
"His turn," I said.
JFK International Airport 01:05 EST
The 747 taxied onto the runway and paused as the big turbofans began to wail. In the brief moment the jet was motionless a small cloud descended unseen on the tail and evaporated. There was no hint of it when the aircraft accelerated and pulled into a steep climb.
Grace Mahone stepped out of the kitchenette and motioned to the new attendant on the flight. Karen Oh walked up to her quickly, eager to impress the senior attendant.
"I want you to start heating up the food in an hour."
There was a scream from behind the curtain seperating the business and economy. Grace hurried back, smiling reassuringly at the passengers who were looking around nervously and peeked around the partition.
The back half of the passenger compartment seemed to be enveloped in a nebulous haze that made everything indistinct. Her first instinct was to alert the captain about a cabin fire but she paused with her hand on the intercom handset when she realized there was no smell. Then the haze cleared and she stared at the thing that came hopping up the aisle.
She looked like someone had taken a rabbit and bred it with a human. She was bipedal with large feet, a short extended snout with a split upper lip and black nose, large eyes and two ears that flopped on either side of her head. Soft black fur covered her body and two large incisors were visible when she opened her mouth. She wore something resembling the attendant's uniform but abbreviated; a blue miniskirt with a hole in the back to allow a short tail to poke through and a powder blue sleeveless shirt cut off just below the breasts it barely contained. The nametag read 'Judith' and it took Grace a few moments to connect the name with the South African attendant she had boarded the plane with.
"Oh my God," she whispered and watched in stunned facination as the rabbit-woman waved at her and calmly served drinks to a humanoid mouse in a business suit. She could see four other attendants all changed as well but in different forms, a cat, a dog, a camel and a raccoon. The passengers made up an even more diverse assortment.
She felt a tingling and lost control of her legs. As she tumbled she heard more shrieks and saw Karen fall as well and disappear in a silver cloud that seemed to emerge from the floor. She raised her hand to her face and watched it twist and distort as the silver film covering it shimmered and flowed. A web formed between her fingers and each nail lengthened into a small, sharp claw. Everything distorted, her vision seeming to split into two seperate fields and then reforming into a wider one partially obstructed in the middle by her muzzle. She shook her head and stood, using her broad tail to help support her until she regained her balance.
Karen slithered forward and laid one of her claws on Grace's fur-covered arm. Her lidless yellow eyes showed concern, the slit of ner pupils narrow as she surveyed her senior.
"Are you all right? You ssseemed dizzzzy."
"I'm fine. I'll grab a cedar stick to chew on in a while. Now, we have a flight to take care of."
Karen turned, carefully keeping her leathery wings pulled in so she did not accidently hit one of the passengers and returned to the front. Grace shook her head and smiled. Old age starting to come through. She picked up an armload of magazines and offered one to the large buffalo who was squeezed into the closest seat.
Seawolf Class USS Orca 210 nautical miles north of Ellesmere Island, Canada
"Lost it again."
"Goddammit, Jonesy, it's an Alfa. The thing is noisier then a screamer in a whorehouse."
"Aye, sir, but it just went away. Like it turned off."
"You do not just 'turn off' a submarine."
"Aye, sir. Sir, something..."
"Well, it sounds like something moving through the water, fast. Bearing one seven seven."
"The bastard's on our tail. Conn, sonar. We have a fast moving contact bearing one seven seven, range..."
"...one thousand meters and closing."
"Oh shit it's coming hard."
"Conn, sonar, contact five hundred meters!"
"All hands, battle stations, battle stations! Brace for impact!"
"What the fuck was that?"
"Nothing. I've got nothing else incoming?"
"They know they fired a dud. What the hell are they waiting for?"
Sonar Specialist Gordon Kovic, nicknamed 'Jonesy' as were all who manned the sonar station, never saw the oddly coloured cloud that enveloped him and his crewmates. They laid unconscious as the ship began to dissolve much as another had just a few moments previously, the nuclear reactor's fuel stolen to power the process of disintegration.
Jonesy's first thought on awakening was how cold the water was. She flicked her tail and listened to the calls of the rest of her school, building a picture of the ice above her and the sea around by the intricate pattern of echoes. Internal senses took over and oriented her with the magnetic fields so she was facing south. With her arms pressed closely to her sides and her tail generating powerful strokes she was soon cutting through the water and heading toward warmer water more suited to her kind. She wondered if she would happen upon a ship with a human male to mate.
"So how are you today?"
"What do you want now?" I asked. The near constant irritation of having Weinberg pester me every few hours was getting on my nerves. After the first three times I had Scarpelli take apart the comm panel in my room. A small transmitter and receiver were tied into the amplifier so I felt some reassurance that he at least was not around. I told Scarpelli to leave it there as there was no point in attempting to defeat it. Weinberg could be back any time to repair it despite any effort we might make.
"I just wanted to see how the opposition was doing. You know, if you were getting ready to start that big adventure into the unknown to defeat the insane god." He giggled and I suppressed an urge to ram one of my swords into the speaker.
"Oh come now. You must have realized what kind of game this is."
"Oh, I know. But every game has an objective, a purpose."
"I suppose you'll be all hot and bothered if I don't tell you. Fine then, here's the deal. I'll give you some hints. You figure out the clues and you'll know where to go. And when you find me we'll have a grand old battle. Bye now."
Laforge was waiting for me in the conference room. He handed me a sheet of paper.
PAST THE SHINING LIGHT OF WELCOME
LIES THE WAY OF FAME SO BROAD
WHERE CATS AND DOLLS AND SINGING LINES
PAY HOMAGE TO THEIR GOD
AND WHAT LIES BEFORE IS IN THE BACK
TO COMPLETE THIS LITTLE JOB
"It came out of one of the printers a few minutes ago."
"Weinberg is playing his game. This is supposed to be a clue where we'll have to go."
"What's it mean?"
Gregg looked at a copy in her hands. "It would be something fairly easy. He wants us to play so he'd want us to figure it out."
"You haven't already?"
Laforge looked at me. "Then what's the clue, smartass?"
"Simple. Take the words 'cats', 'dolls', and change 'singing line' to 'chorus line'. 'The way of fame so broad' is Broadway. 'The shining light of welcome' is the Statue of Liberty. If you approach by sea you're welcomed by Liberty and past it is Manhattan and Broadway. We have to go to the theatre district where, among others, they've shown 'Cats', 'Guys and Dolls' and 'A Chorus Line' at various times. And I'd check to see if 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is playing."
I insisted on bringing Elizabeth along as she still was our expert of nanotechnology even though she insisted that she had no idea how Weinberg's bugs worked. I suppose the real reason was that I was afraid to leave her alone in case the maniac attacked her again. An irrational idea I'll admit since if her did there would not be a damn thing I could do about it.
Laforge waved and pointed to his mouth. I pulled the microphone of my headset down and plugged into the communications link.
"We're setting down in Central Park. I've got a SWAT Team ready to escort us."
The team was in their black fatigues. A short man stepped forward and introduced himself as Sergeant Ricci. He addressed Laforge and Hanes, pointedly ignoring Elizabeth, Gregg and myself. Probably had to do with the uniforms. My sweatshirt and jeans did not exactly lend me an aura of authority.
"Sir, we have weapons for your...qualified personnel." Hanes tried to sneak a smile at the putdown. He still had this problem with civilians. Gregg frowned and then sighed. She pulled the nine millimeter Browning she always wore out of the shoulder holster where it had been hidden underneath her overcoat.
"Well, I hope I'm still qualified," she said icily. "Although it's been a while since Quantico." Ricci looked embarrassed. The point had been made, I decided. From the back of the equipment van I picked out an MP-5 and three extra mags, slipping the spares into my belt.
The ride downtown was quick thanks to the three police cars escorting us. When we arrived in front of the theatre currently playing an adaptation of "The Last Temptation of Christ" we screeched to a halt. A number of police officers were trying to evacuate the theatre without incident while the indignant patrons demanded to know what was going on.
"Well?" Laforge asked.
"I don't know." The other theatres were undisturbed. We had not wanted to cause too much panic on what was a guess on my part. Apparently a good thing since it appeared that I was wrong.
"Search the place from top to bottom," I said. "I have no idea what we're looking for but it will be something obviously different, something that attracts attention." While the police grumbled and began the search I stood in front of the marquee and thought about it. The clue was too obvious and this play was the only one in town that had anything to do with religion. This had to be it. I recited the doggerel again and paused.
"...what lies before is in the back..." I spun around and saw the posters behind me, across the street, announce two performances of "Cats".
The son of a bitch must have been watching and waiting for me to figure out his riddle because as soon as I started to approach the second theatre there was an unholy cacophony of howling and the doors burst open to discharge his little gift. I caught a glimpse of fur moving past me and Ricci yelled in surprise as he felt something jump on him. Gregg fired and the thing screamed and fell back. I only had a moment to make out the muzzle full of vicious teeth and the sharp extended claws before I was assaulted as well. It hurt like hell when I hit the pavement and everything seemed to slow as the female cat on top of me raised one claw, clearly intent on slicing open my throat. I raised the submachine gun and blew the top of her head off and pushed the body aside. Gregg and Elizabeth were dragging Ricci back to the makeshift skirmish line formed by the police cars and Laforge was shouting orders to the police officers and SWAT team. A cop was lying in a pool of blood with one of the were-cats chewing on what was left of her throat. I felt sick for a moment when I realized that this had probably been a child before Weinberg had worked his technological magic but reflexes took over. The MP-5 bucked and the small beast convulsed and died.
I scrambled back to the police line. The regular officers were providing covering fire to keep the mob of attackers back while members of the SWAT team made small charges to rescue people caught in the initial onslaught.
"General!" I shouted. "Keep them inside! Keep them alive! They're innocent!"
"Too late!" Laforge yelled back, firing off his .45. Nonetheless when the attackers withdrew back through the main doors he ordered a cease fire and bellowed for someone to call for back up. While most of the armed personnel kept the entrance covered with their weapons the rest ran around trying to recover the victims still alive and identify any of the felines still alive. Without any idea what do they snapped handcuffs on them and tied their feet with makeshift ropes, belts or anything else they could lay their hands on. As reinforcements arrived Laforge ordered them to set up a security cordon around the building and only fire if they saw one of the transformed try to escape.
"Now what do we do?" Gregg asked. Laforge looked at me and I turned to the besieged building.
"Gas them," I said. "Use some of the neurodepressants we have and try and take them alive. Once they're out we'll move them to someplace we can keep an eye on them."
"Like a fucking zoo," Ricci groaned. He was holding a cold pack to the back of his head and had bandages covering claw marks on one cheek. "What the fuck are those things?"
"People, sergeant. People who were in the wrong place at the wrong time." There was a shout and the crack of a rifle, followed by an inhuman yowl of pain. "Anytime you want to get that gas here, general..."
All things considered the death toll was small. Three police were dead, eighteen seriously injured. Five civilians were confirmed, two were missing and twenty-six wounded. The were-cats had suffered more due to the lack of weapons. There were twenty-six bodies collected from the street. Five were expected to die and eight had good odds for survival. An unknown number had escaped and were being hunted by the police and zoo personnel armed with tranquilizers after testing on the captured ones indicated they responded to drugs. As for those thirteen, they were securely fastened to stretchers and placed in a container to be transported to one of the more secure secret labs on the Eastern seaboard that was unlikely to be secret for much longer.
We gassed them early the next morning, pumping it in through the central heating and air conditioning systems. Seventeen more died from either wounds or a combination of system weakness due to injury and the effects of the gas. Three were infants. I led one of the recovery teams who secured the unconscious survivors and placed them in more special transport vehicles. It took us eight hours to find them all and we had to gas the building a second time to ensure that none of them woke. We found what was left of the two missing civilians in the lobby.
I sat, morose, in one of the theatre seats and wondered what they had felt when their humanity, their very bodies, were raped and stolen from them. I suspected that they still had their minds and like Elizabeth had been manipulated to make them do something they hated.
"Any suggestions on public relations?" Hanes asked as he slumped into the seat next to me.
"We can always say they took the performance too seriously."
"I can see the headlines now."
"Wait for it. This is only the beginning." We both stared in silence and the destroyed set and shredded curtains.
"You know something, I'm a bit sick of this game already."
"That's because it's real, captain. I'll lay odds thousands of people who have played D and D have fought an onrushing horde of bloodthirsty monsters. They manage. When it isn't real you can accept anything without having to deal with the consequences."
"By the way, Shannon, the boys found this in the control booth."
It was a rolled parchment in a silver case. I sighed and slid the paper out. IF YOU READ THIS YOU CLEARLY SURVIVED. SO HOW MANY DID YOU KILL?
"Bastard," I muttered.
WELL DONE THE FIGHT, THE BATTLE WON NOW 'TIS TIME FOR YET MORE FUN METHINKS THE BIG APPLE'S CORE IS ROT SO WHAT OTHER PLACE HAVE WE GOT? PERHAPS YOUR ADORING BROTHER CAN SAY WHERE ELSE THAT I CAN GO AND PLAY
"An adoring brother is a loving brother. The City of Brotherly Love. I always did want to visit Philadelphia."
Saint Gregory's School for Girls, Pasadena, California 08:45 PST, 18 December
The class sat attentively as Sister Debra showed them the proper way to attend to a man. She ran her tongue over the banana she had brought as a teaching aid and begin to suck on the fruit, pausing every few moments to offer some hints on technique to the enraptured girls.
Sister Margaret, the Mother Superior, entered the classroom. She looked to be in her mid twenties with full red lips and dark blue eyeliner. She was dressed in the school's uniform, her habit sleeveless and in two pieces, revealing her firm stomach and narrow waist. The lower section hugged her hips and consisted of skintight black leggings and a long dress slit up both sides so it was actually a loincloth tied at the waist with a length of gold cord. Her stiletto heels clicked on the tile floor as she walked, her movements causing the stylized golden phallus she wore on a long chain around her neck to swing slightly. She clapped to get the attention of the twenty-odd teenage girls.
"Ladies, I'm pleased to announce that some of the students from the boy's school will be visiting us this afternoon. You are to make them feel welcome, is that understood?"
"Yes, Mother Superior," they replied in unison. Some already had their hands slipped up under their skirts, eager to finally meet the students of the other parochial school in the town and excited to demonstrate the skills they had been learning.
Grand Canyon National Park 09:50 MST, 18 December
Sam Randall stretched and yawned, kicking out one hind leg at a time to work the kinks out of it after a night's rest. He twisted one long ear and caught the sounds of laughter coming from the river. Smiling, he stepped carefully down the narrow path and saw the girls splashing each other with the chill Colorado water. They were naked and he felt himself begin to stiffen as he caught sight of their nipples so erect because of the chill air. Now fully aroused he brayed loudly.
Bill, Eddie and Warren heard the sound and stopped splashing each other, giggling when they saw Sam running toward them awkwardly, his enormous erection jerking from side to side as he moved. They scrambled to get out of the water, all three mares wanting to be the first.
We caught the noon hour news on the flight to Philly. The top story was the incident at the theatre. Thankfully there were no pictures except for some blurred figures being loaded into one of the transports. I was caught by surprise when the second story came up. A 747 from New York had landed in Houston with all of the passengers apparently changed into animals. This time there was no blurring of the video recording. I turned to Laforge but he was already on the radio calling our agents in Texas. He came back a few minutes later and said the 747, with fighter escort, was back in the air and headed to Wright-Patterson where a ground team was waiting.
There was an SR-71 sitting on the ground in Philly when we arrived. I jumped into the flight suit the pilot held and climbed into the cockpit. The huge engines, already hot, threw us into the air. We were passing three thousand feet before we hit the end of the runway.
The 747 arrived two hours after I did. I stood on the tarmac as the jet glided to a halt and was surrounded by troops. I skipped the contamination suit that was offered me. I already knew the cause.
The pilot met me at the door, introducing himself as Captain Wilhelm Schroeder. I took him at his word as I thought it rather unlikely the airline's files would have a picture of a six-foot tall humanoid fox. I had to admit he made a rather striking figure but I was still careful because of my previous encounter Weinberg's creations.
Within a few minutes of talking it became clear that Schroeder saw nothing wrong with his condition. This worried me as it was the first bit of evidence I had that Weinberg could directly affect the mind instead of overriding it.
"Captain, what are you?"
He looked confused. "I am a man."
"Did you always look the way you do?"
Conversations with the rest of the flight crew yielded the same responses. They had always been as they were now. Nothing would shake them of that belief. Well, no, they did not know why they looked like they did. It was genetics, wasn't it?
I began to have a suspicion what was happening.
When people think of mind control they assume one of two things: either the subject is in a mental battle with something controlling their actions or else their personality is completely erased and replaced with another. The truth is much more insidious and relies on a basic factor of the human mind that people use all the time. When the result is considered positive it is called a hunch, when wrong jumping to conclusions.
The human mind, in the absence of direct evidence, tends to fill in the blanks and what is filled in is based on a combination of memory, unconscious observations and beliefs. It probably served our ancestors as a survival tool, warning them that the branches moving in the bush might be a predator ready to pounce. Unchecked it leads to paranoia but otherwise is present in everyone. Can't explain lightning? Someone must be making it like you make fire banging rocks together. Can't understand why everything in your life is screwed up? Find someone to blame and your mind will provide all the details to support your conclusion and to you they look extremely logical and well-reasoned.
There was an interesting series of experiments I had read about where people's brains were subjected to electrical stimulation to produce physical reactions yet the subjects almost always entirely insisted that they had caused the reaction and even gave an explanation of why they did it. The implication, the authors stated, was disturbing. If it was possible to generate a certain condition in the mind the brain would fill in all the details why that condition existed. The ultimate in mind control. The person would believe they were acting by choice even if they knew they had never done anything like that before. No internal conflict, no struggle for control.
The only way I could think of beating it was to create a paradox so inescapable the person could not fall back on their self-created belief. I needed evidence they had changed. I found the evidence above one of the flight attendant's seats. A small photo of a woman and two children playing in a back yard. A...woman...who looked like a Chinese dragon looked over my shoulder.
"Who is that?"
"Oh, Grace Mahone and her kids. She always tapes it up there for luck."
I grabbed the photo and looked for Grace Mahone. I found her chatting with several passengers. I had never thought a beaver could be the least bit attractive but she somehow managed to pull it off. Well so she was not exactly as good looking as the were
rabbit I saw further back in the plane but she was not by any means heinous.
"Could you come with me, please?"
She followed me into the cockpit where I closed the door. She looked at me expectantly with what I assumed was a smile.
"Miss Mahone, have you always been half beaver?"
She looked startled. "Of course."
"How did you get that way?"
"I was born like this. Do you have something against rodents?"
"So you were born this way, right?"
"I told you, yes." Her tail began to tap the floor impatiently.
I handed her the photograph. "Then explain this."
I expected some reaction. I simply did not expect it to happen so immediately. She stared at the photograph for a moment and then looked at her webbed fingers and then she screamed.
"Are you okay?"
"I'll live." She rose unsteadily to her feet and staggered. Her tail moved quickly and wedged itself against the bulkhead. Interesting.
"What do you remember?"
"Uh, everything, I think. The silver cloud, the change. Everything between then and now is really strange." Her features crinkled. "It's like remembering a dream, you know where you're doing something and it seems so real and you wake up and realize it was a dream." She pulled a small stick of wood out of her shirt pocket and began to chew on it.
"Your brain seems to be hardwired to suit the new body," I said.
"Will I ever turn back?"
"I don't know," I admitted.
She twisted her tail forward and felt the tough leathery surface. "I suppose I can get used to it," she sighed.
"Miss Mahone, I represent a government group that has resources that are going to assist the people on this flight as much as possible but I need your help. I have to leave and someone is going to have to help the rest of the people here get through this. Can you help me?"
She nodded and walked with me into the passenger compartment.
I was back in the air in less than a half-hour and considered this new information on the way back to Philadelphia. Why had he created the escapees from the Island of Dr. Moreau? He thinks it's a game, I reminded myself. A game...players...a goal...rules ...challenges...and a game master. Game master. And then it clicked. This was a test to see if he could create "non-player characters", an experiment in monster generation. I silently thanked the friend who had introduced me to role playing games in college. The only problem was that this made the game much, much bigger. I had no idea how many other little experiments he could be running.
And I still didn't know all the rules.
Williams Creek, Georgia 10:32 EST, 19 Dec
They gathered in the church to be together and to pray for forgiveness. He had come and He had found them wanting. Their lives must be dedicated to Him, He had declared.
The priest suffered quietly in the corner, starving to death. Without a mouth he could say nothing, without arms or legs he could only sit in horror and watch as they tied the young woman to the hastily
rigged scaffolding in front of the choir box. He recognized her as the new schoolteacher, Emma Whelan. She screamed for help but none moved to assist her.
The school principal walked out and bowed before the symbol of their god. The crucifix had been torn down and replaced by a crude representation of a cloud hammered from the mass of silver that remained after the melting down of the communion chalice. He rose and faced the crowd, spreading his arms wide to deliver his benediction.
"Our God demands a sacrifice. Let the unbeliever become one with God so that He may make her in His image to spread His word."
"Praise be to God," the crowd chanted.
She screamed as the cloud descended and enveloped her, her cries lost in the growing volume of the crowd's chant. The priest closed his eyes and prayed but the only prayers being answered were those who had left him to die.
She stood on the stage, naked. Her skin was a flawless metallic film that reflected the light like the finest silver and when she opened her eyes they were glowing white. She slowly surveyed the congregation and raised her arms.
"I am God's Messenger," she declared. The crowd fell to their knees and prayed to her and to Her God.
And the priest was left alone with his suffering.
We were sitting in the compartment of our jet which was acting as our temporary HQ. It was 12 hours since I had returned from Wright
Patterson and still there was no sign of Weinberg playing his games. CNN was covering the incident in New York with another crew in Indiana trying to get an interview with the passengers on the aircraft. Every hour there was a new moron giving his theory why these events had occurred. Most revolved around either a government project gone wrong, aliens or God. One woman even managed to describe a conspiracy that involved all three elements combined in a truly fascinating way. By far the best was the animal-rights activist who explained it was Nature (you could practically hear the capitalization) avenging herself against the human species. So far there was no reports of anyone associating these events with a silver cloud.
The President had decided to return to Washington with his wife, but left his daughter at Cheyenne Mountain. Laforge was speaking to the White House almost continuously as the President prepared to make an address to the nation.
"The Joint Chiefs are recommending that our forces be brought on alert," Laforge said. "There have been some rumblings about a disease causing the changes and some people are suggesting, privately, that we should be sterilized to prevent spread of the contagion."
"I imagine they've denied entry to all US aircraft?"
He nodded. "We're lucky they just didn't shoot them down. There are at least fifty airliners on the way back here."
"It'll get worse," I said. I stared out a window and wondered when Weinberg would play his hand. "What about our guests in the lab?"
Laforge tossed me a report. "Read for yourself."
I recognized Roach's script. The were-cats we had taken alive in New York had been confused and frightened when they recovered from the effects of the gas but otherwise appeared to be well. I skipped over the document and read the psych profile attentively. Generally calm, evident primative language skills, no obvious aggressive behaviour. Crude testing had given them a human-equivalent intelligence of a five-year old but it seemed to be increasing.
The autopsies completed on the dead confirmed that they were mostly human internally with changes in their muscle structure and skeleton like Elizabeth's, giving them enhanced physical abilities. Sensory systems one would expect to find in a cat et cetera, et cetera. I paused when I saw the toxicology report. All of the dead showed very high levels of adrenaline, more than could be produced by the body, and a compound resembling LSD. Roach believed the combination of hallucinogen and dangerously high stimulant would explain the violent behaviour we had witnessed. Given the note I had recieved from Weinberg the data fit. Those people were probably still themselves but had been driven temporarily insane by the chemicals placed in their body during the transformation. If the shooting had been allowed to continue we would have killed innocent people as I feared we had been.
"So why is he doing these different things to people?" Elizabeth asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Why leave me almost the same mentally, make some people believe they had always been the way they are and use chemicals on others?"
"Experimenting?" Gregg suggested.
"I don't think so," I said, "but it does make sense in a sick sort of way. From now on when we meet someone who has been changed we won't know if they are acting on their own, under his control permanently, temporarily or even if they think at all. I will lay even odds he has someone, somewhere, who will willingly work for him. It's part of the game, another obstacle that we have to overcome."
"Speaking of the game," Hanes said, "why are we here?"
The pilot leaned out of the cockpit. "I just got a message that we might want to check out CNN right now."
Laforge turned on the TV and we watched in fascination as a reporter tried to interview fans at the stadium. What was the most intriguing was that the reporter looked like a living Daisy Duck had Daisy been drawn by a fourteen-year sex-crazed boy. The trenchcoat and fedora she wore, with a tag labelled "PRESS" stuck in the fedora's band only lent an aura of surreality to the scene. Adding to the situation was the fans sitting quietly around her who appeared to be humanoid birds. Big birds with white feathered heads and large hooked beaks.
"...moments ago the game between the Eagles and Vikings was halted when a silver-coloured cloud descended on the stadium. I can't explain what happened to everyone here but I'll try. As you can see I have changed, as has everyone else here..."
She had a remarkable amount of composure, I thought.
"...but no one was apparently injured."
The camera pulled back and zoomed in on the field. One side had more of the birds milling around, dressed in football uniforms while the other had fifty huge bearded men. Their helmets had horns jutting out the sides and when the camera went in close enough you could see their uniforms were made out of fur and leather.
"Stupid mistake," I commented. "Vikings didn't wear horned helmets."
"...and I'm joined now by fans Bill Prescott and his wife Jillian."
The image snapped back to the reporter and she had two people on either side of her. One was a five-foot tall bird in a ball cap and a jersey. His wife was easily six-three and had long blonde hair tied into two thick ponytails. She wore a ballcap as well but hers had two horns jutting out the sides. She was dressed in a rough cloth shirt, leather vest and long leather skirt, the thick leather belt she wore carrying a short sword on her left side.
"Well, I think we can figure out what teams you were cheering for."
The eagle made a kind of screeching noise I assumed was a laugh. "I've always been an Eagles fan, I just never thought I would be an eagle fan, ya know?"
"Und I haff alvays been a huge fan of der Vikings," his wife added. I winced. It was the worst Germanic-Swedish accent I had heard in my life. Brunhilde she might look like but Wagner would have had a fit if she tried to talk.
"So what do you think of this change?"
The woman shrugged. "I do not know. It yust sort of happened, you know. But I do not think that it vill affect our lives too much."
I turned to Gregg. "This is a new one. What do you think?"
"Variation on what you reported on the plane. He probably gave them the ability to accept what happened. Based on your experience breaking the programming they'll probably have a tough time when they realize that not everyone else accepts that they've changed."
The camera panned back to the field and I saw the Vikings' cheerleaders. "The birds might have a tough time but I doubt the vikings will have any trouble finding friends."
"Look at the scoreboard." The TV was showing the scoreboard and the writing that had appeared on it. Laforge instantly pressed the record button on the VCR and then squinted to read the words.
"This is for my dear old friend Are you ready to play again? The next part of this mystery Can be found near old Dixie Near the shop without a store Where congregates some awful bores Then I'll run up a stately street And with the leading donkey I will meet"
"Somewhere in the south, obviously," Gregg mused.
"New Orleans?" Hanes asked. "That's the original Dixie."
"Washington," I said. "The shop without a store means the Mall. The bores meet in Congress. And Pennsylvania Avenue, a street named after a state, leads to the White House. I suppose I don't have to mention what the mascot for the President's party is?"
"We are going to have a difficult time explaining this," Laforge said calmly. The two of us stood surrounded by Secret Service agents in the Ballroom and watched as the President thoughtfully chewed on some flowers in a porceline vase. He turned and brayed at us and then resumed eating.
"Well, the Republicans always said he was an ass."
The Secret Service agents glared at me. In spite of himself Laforge snickered. His opposition to policy was well known among the Event Horizon staff.
"What about the First Lady?" Laforge asked.
"I'm fine, general," someone said behind us. We turned, half
expecting to see some kind of half-human monstrosity. Surprisingly she was still apparently human. "I don't like your attitude about my husband."
"I'm sorry ma'am." He didn't seem the least bit contrite.
"I would like to speak with you and your friend in private." She turned away and I saw the long pink rat's tail that emerged from the small slit in her dress. Laforge coughed and I elbowed him into silence. We followed her to her office where she closed the door and faced us.
"And before you ask, gentlemen, I am fully aware that I have a tail." She sat sideways in a chair and draped the appendage over the arm. "No one else around here seems to notice it."
"Were they here when you were changed?"
She nodded. I looked at Laforge. "That's another variation."
I explained everything I had learned and surmised about Weinberg, including his assorted methods of psychological manipulation we had seen so far. She listened attentively and nodded, asking curt questions about what sort of power Weinberg displayed. She was intrigued when she heard about the incident at the football game.
"So he can affect thousands at a time?"
"Ma'am, if he wants to he can affect millions at a time."
"So if what you say is true why is he staying small?"
I shook my head. "We have no real proof he is. The agents outside prove he could have been manipulating millions and we don't know it because they look and act normal. And as much as communications go from one end of the country to the other there are probably places that we don't know about where something as dramatic as Philadelphia or New York is taking place."
I had never met Holly Calvin before and never paid much attention to politics so other than the fact she was married to the President I had not bothered to learn anything about her. At thirty-five she was married to the youngest man ever to hold the office, two years her senior and had never been in the spotlight. The more I talked with her the more I realized that she was a forceful and highly intelligent woman, not the trophy bride some of the media had portrayed her as. Although she would probably not be the First Lady for long. As much as the public might like calling the President a donkey I doubt they would accept a real one as the Commander-in-Chief. She seemed to read my mind.
"I'll have to get the staff to start getting the transfer of power underway," she said and sighed. "I really liked this place."
There was a polite knock on the door and one of the Secret Service agents entered and whispered something to Laforge. He groaned and muttered "Send them in."
Hanes, Gregg and Elizabeth entered. Hanes saluted the First Lady and stood stiffly at attention, fighting to keep from staring at the tail that twitched every now and then. Gregg and Elizabeth were less discrete.
"Feel free to say what you have to, captain. And please don't stare at my tail. I'm rather self-conscious about it."
I liked her sense of humor.
"Yes, ma'am. We've just returned from the Capitol. Most of the members present were...well, they were monkeys."
"Yes, ma'am. In suits. Swinging from the lights."
She tried to suppress as smile. I didn't bother. Despite the seriousness of the situation some things were just too funny.
"All of them were monkeys?"
Hanes coughed. "Not exactly. There were some skunks and the speaker of the house was a, uh, lizard."
Trust Weinberg to have such a sick sense of humor.
There was a tinging noise and we all turned to face the television that had sprung to life. Weinberg's giggle (oh lord do I want to use a shotgun on his voicebox) pierced the air and he smiled contentedly.
"Hello, my friends! Mrs. President, so nice to meet you again. I must say you're looking pretty ratty today."
She glared at the screen, her tail flicking angrily in the air.
"You realize that you have endangered this entire nation," she spat at the screen. "People are afraid and my advisors have told me that some nations are contemplating a nuclear strike to stop this."
Weinberg (or at least his image) pursed his lips. "Tsk tsk tsk, are you trying to scare me? I know exactly what is going on. For example five minutes ago the Russian Prime Minister was on the phone with the British and French Prime Ministers to inform them that his nation was prepared to use their aresenal to stop this, and I quote, 'Horrific plague from spreading'. At this moment, if he's still alive, he's running around the office shaped like a pig trying to escape the wolves that I turned his aides into...oops, cancel that. They just caught him." He smiled. "The French President is now running for his life from the giant robot that used to be the Eiffel Tower and the British PM is, how we say, in a family way. It's amazing how fast it can happen when you turn a man into a sweet and innocent teenager and pump up the testosterone in the nearest guy. >From what I saw he didn't enjoy it in the least."
"Has anyone ever told you how insane you are?" the First Lady said angrily.
"Sure. Mister Shannon has expressed that opinion quite a few times. You know I'm getting tired of this game. How about a new one? And this time I'll even let you know the rules."
I exploded. "What bloody game? People have died because of you, you self-centered prick."
"More than you think, Mister Shannon. And more will." The smile never left his face. "Every chess master expects to lose a few pawns and the great artist wastes a lot of rock to sculpt his masterpiece.
"So this is the way it's going to be. I'll keep giving you clues and you'll face me but I'll spice up the game a bit. In the next three minutes I'm going to initialize a random program. Some places will stay the same, some will change totally, some just a bit. Everything I can think of putting into it will be possible. Think of it as a grand adventure. And you people will be the adventurers, braving the unknown to locate the lair of the mighty god." The image looked thoughtful. "But you have to look more like adventurers."
The silver cloud appeared from nowhere and descended on us.
The first thing I remembered was a sensation of floating and of darkness. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing to touch. I slowly became aware of sensation but it wasn't something I could describe. It was like I could feel everything at once. Then there was a flash of light and I could see again.
I raised myself up on my elbows and looked around. Mrs Calvin was the first one I saw. Her blue dress had been replaced by a brown leather tunic laced up the front and a pair of knee
length breeches but she seemed otherwise unchanged. She brushed her loose brown hair back out of her face and I saw that she had undergone more than I had initially thought. Her ears were larger and more rounded and small claws tipped her fingers. Her toes carried larger versions that looked impressively sharp.
"Are you okay, Misses Calvin?"
"I'm fine." She stood and brushed herself off. "Your companions..."
Elizabeth looked the same but wearing chainmail cloak clasped at the waist with a leather belt. Underneath was a simple cloth shirt. A pair of leather pants, thigh-high boots, gauntlets and a sword slung across her back completed the ensemble. Hanes was eight feet tall, minimum. His features were brutish with a prominent brow ridge, bushy eyebrows and two lower canine teeth that jutted out of mouth. His outfilt was a simple animal hide thrown over the shoulder and held by a rough rope belt. A huge club rested at his feet.
Susan Gregg had become thinner with gently upswept ears, thin eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes. Clad in a flowing silk robe she touched her ears with delicate fingers and stared at me then began to look for a mirror. I heard Laforge curse loudly as he realized he stood barely four feet high. Dwarf, I immediately classified him. He stomped around, his uniform shrunk to fit him.
So what had happened to me? Elizabeth asked me the same thing and I shrugged. I pulled off my jacket and placed it on the chair intending to examine myself when I heard someone gasp. The jacket was melting and changing colour. In a few seconds it was a silvery pool that looked and moved like mercury. It slid across the carpet until it touched my shoe and then seemed to evaporate.
This was an interesting developement.
For an experiment I thought about the jacket again. I was unsurprised when it seemed to reform out of my body and appear in my hand.
"I think," I said, "that I've seen this movie already."
Washington was clearly one of those areas that had been in the "almost everything changes" category. The neoclassical architecture of the government buildings and museums now reached as far as the eye could see and were far more impressive than Rome had ever been. The streets were clean and well-maintained, the people well dressed and polite.
We barely made it out alive.
Apparently this new Washington was an enclave of "pure humans" and these people were rather uptight about it. First Citizen Albertus Calvinus was very concerned, ordering his guards to seize his wife (who he clearly did not know), Hanes, Gregg and Laforge. Elizabeth and I were accused of consorting with non-humans. Death seemed to be the most popular punishment.
I caught them by surprise when my arms became long tentacles that tossed several aside. Hanes bellowed and began throwing bodies, Elizabeth seized her sword back and began slicing, Holly Calvin leaped at one and began to rake his face with her claws while Laforge grabbed a fallen pistol and started picking off guards who came running in.
Gregg seemed lost until one man grabbed her wrist and spun her around. She raised her hands to his face and he screamed, allowing her to escape. We fought our way to the hall and Calvin guided us to the garage. No cars but there were several horses saddled to chariots. It was only surprise that allowed us to reach the wall surrounding the city and get through a gate before it slammed shut. We fled into the forest that had not been there a few hours previously.
"So, did anyone catch the clue we were supposed to get?" Elizabeth asked. Gregg closed her eyes and began to chant.
"The change is over, the world renewed The game begins, we continue our feud Seek the city of illumination And appreciate the wonder of my imagination"
She shook her head and opened her eyes. "How...how did I do that?"
"I have no idea," I said. "But could you try and use that ESP to find us some transport to Paris?"
"Shannon! Wake up!"
I shook my head and fell off the cot unto the cold bare concrete floor. The pain quickly jolted me into full consciousness and I stared at Laforge. All six feet of him.
"You've been sleeping since you got here."
I suddenly realized how Bobby Ewing must have felt.
Laforge elbowed his way through the medical staff that had been hastily assembled while I followed, still groggy and with a stiff neck. I think I liked him better as a dwarf. It took a few minutes but reality began to reassert itself. There was no worldwide catastrophe and I was not a liquid metal changeling and Weinberg was not yet the god he claimed to be. Not that it would be any consolation to the people he had already claimed as victims. Strapped to tables they were hardly the killers they had been the day before.
Commander Roach handed me his results and I wished that part of the nightmare I'd had would be real but hard data was unforgiving. Examination of the corpses (oh god even that child I shot) proved there was little in the way of intelligence. Their brains were simply too simple to have any hope human intelligence. I suppose I could have consoled myself that the people I'd killed weren't really human any more and it had been Weinberg's fault and I'd had no choice but I would be lying to myself. I gave Roach back his report and looked down on one of the prisoners. Another child, probably three feet tall and strapped down securely to the bare steel table. It looked up at me with black eyes and hissed. All that was left was bloodlust.
And I knew that if I had to I would kill this child as well.
I swore there that Weinberg was going to die. Slowly and very painfully. And I would enjoy it.
"What about those people on that jet?"
"They'll survive. We've secured a hangar up at Wright for them to stay until we figure something out." Laforge looked at the child on the table. "They'll do better than these poor devils. I've ordered a team of psychologists up there to help them cope. At least they still have their minds."
I glanced at my watch. Six days until Christmas. And then I kicked myself mentally. I know one cannot be held responsible for a dream but December 19th was a Thursday and there were no NFL games on a Thursday. I had no idea my subconscious had such lousy logic in creating a dream. Although I did like that bit about Newt becoming a newt. Hopefully the ethics committee would be the only thing he would have to worry about.
Laforge led me to the makeshift command center. Philadelphia had seemed a dead end until a news report came up about vandalism at the Liberty Bell. Hanes and a strike team had surrounded the building but found that Weinberg had limited himself to rearranging the lettering on the bell to read "Have a nice day! Remember, Mohammed went to the mountain and even indians initially never order radish and dates! See you there!" He looked at me expectantly but I shrugged.
"Give me time."
"That is one thing we do not have. I have to give a news conference."
"It's been decided to let people know what's happened. After that debacle in New York it's impossible to pretend we can keep a lid on this."
He left me alone. Without anything specific to do I bothered one of the techs for a sheet of paper and a pen. I sat at an abandoned table and stared at a copy of the message found on the bell. Mountains and indians and radishes?
Indians and mountains...initially...never ordered radish...
I quickly jotted down the five words after 'initially'.
Indian mountain. Oh no.
I was arguing with some moron of an Air Force captain who insisted on getting my authorization before he gave me permission to approach the restricted airspace. I threatened him with a long term assignment to Greenland but he ignored me and tried to speak to my pilot. I gave up and sat in my seat and fumed, consoling myself with the knowledge that the captain in question would recieve a rude surprise the next time his orders came down.
We finally recieved permission and set down in front of the huge blast doors that marked the entrance to the buried headquarters of NORAD beneath Cheyenne Mountain. I jumped out of the Blackhawk and ran to the small group of officers waiting for me. When I saw they were armed I had the terrible feeling that I was already too late.
"Mister Shannon? General Laforge called to let us know you were coming. I'm Major Kane, chief of security."
"Major. Why the welcoming committee?"
"We've lost contact with the facility three hours ago. Every time someone tries to go in they are fired on from...people...down the tunnel." He had a odd look when he used the word.
"Well, they looked human at first. This is a still we took from a video camera we sent down with one of the teams."
They looked human if one was half-blind, drunk and in pitch blackness. The picture was far from clear but there was the impression of a human torso with an extra set of arms mounted on an insectoid lower body. This image had the guard carrying a rifle in each arm. If I wanted to get inside the base this was not going to be pretty.
I went back to the chopper and unloaded three cases of equipment I had flown from the Hole to Colorado Springs while I was inbound from Philly. Scarpelli had bitched when I told him what I wanted but finally admitted that the Aberdeen Proving Grounds had just finished field tests on a prototype and indeed the Hole had some in stock.
The assault team watched in fascination as I assembled something that looked like a cross between a science fiction blaster rifle and a rabid overgrown eggbeater. The power cable led from the stock of the unit to the small backpack I wore while a belt with two smaller pistol-sized versions went around my waist. To complete the outfit I stuck a Barreta in my combat vest's built-in holster and slipped a knife in my boot. When I looked up one of the meanest-looking soldiers I had ever seen was staring at me and shaking his head.
"I don't know whether to call you Rambo or Captain Kirk."
"Shannon will do."
There were ten people including myself who would lead the attack. The rest of the security detail would advance once we'd secured the main tunnel and the inner blast doors. Surprisingly Kane would personally lead the advance team. We stood to the sides of the entrance as the big doors slid open.
One man looked around the corner with a small periscope and gave a thumbs up. Two at a time we advanced, each pair taking shelter behind the concrete ribs that supported the tunnel before the next two ran forward to their position. We were about halfway down when we came across the first of the bodies that were riddled by bullets. By my quick count Kane had lost twelve people on the initial forays. The sight of the dead bodies caused the nine people with me to be a bit more alert as we went further into the mountain. It probably saved our lives when the first volley of automatic fire ricocheted up the tunnel. Everyone hugged concrete and our point men returned fire in short controlled bursts. The mean sergeant I'd been talking to loaded a round into the M203 grenade launcher under his rifle and poked it out around the edge of his hide.
"Fire in the hole!" The weapon popped and everyone hugged the ground a little tighter.
There was a sharp blast and then a pained scream. Kane's men were moving, leap-frogging ahead quickly. By the lack of gunfire our assailants had retreated back, probably to the inner blast doors so we advanced without resistance. I made a point of examining our victim. As I had seen there were two pairs of arms on the torso, one above the other. At the waist the the body flattened and was covered with a hard black carapace that was leaking internal organs. One of the four clawed legs had been blown off and two others were twisted at a clearly wrong angle. Another victim of that psychopath that would weigh on my conscience.
We reached the inner doors without further incident. Kane was shaking his head.
"This was too easy."
I suddenly had a suspicion that this was the climax of our duel. Somewhere behind those massive doors Weinberg was waiting for the mano a mano he was so sure he would win. I hoisted my secret weapon and flicked on the power switch. It hummed quietly and the green tell-tale lit up. I signalled Kane and he activated the doors' mechanism.
We took fire as soon as the first crack appeared. One of the men went down holding his arm and cursing, his partner dragging him to shelter between one of the pillars. Three hand grenades arced through the door and we ducked for cover again when they went off almost simultaneously. Kane led the charge through the still
opening blast doors, firing from the hip and discharging his own grenade launcher into the space beyond. I waited for the troops to go through and then sprinted in myself.
The place was a Daliesque acid trip. A huge portrait of Weinberg dominated the wall of the large chamber which was surrounded by grecian columns and burning torches. In the shifting light we saw movement and then a horde of monstrosities attacked. Centaurs carrying heavy machine guns fired wildly while something swooped out of the darkness above and left one of our men on the ground trying to keep his windpipe from falling out of his throat. I had the energy rifle in one hand and fired off the Baretta with the other, dropping two of the centaurs before the return fire became too great and I had to seek shelter behind one of the columns.
The firefight lasted another three inconclusive minutes and slowly died to a few random cracks as both sides warily took stock of the situation. We had lost three, leaving six effectives but two of them were walking wounded. Kane was among the casualties. His body was draped across a centaur.
"Weinberg!" I shouted. "Get your cowardly ass out here!"
There was a sound of rushing air and a silvery cloud began to coalesce in the middle of the room. It spiralled inward on itself and thickened, gradually solidifying into the form of a ridiculously muscled man standing at least seven feet tall. I slid the pistol back into its holster and slowly raised the rifle. The sights formed a neat triangle just as the giant turned toward me.
"The game is over," Weinberg said.
"Indeed." I squeezed the trigger.
The portable EMP projector was one of those projects that had been tossed around secret military labs before the cold war ended and its technology had been adapted for law-enforcement use since. They used it to stop getaway cars and they had just enough power to screw the ignition system. The version I carried would fry a a city block. The electomagnetic pulse slammed into Weinberg like a train. He screamed as his body began to fall apart, the miniaturized electronics of the robots that made up his physical form useless strands of semiconductors and fused microcircuits. He was actually stronger than I anticipated, some of the circuitry remaining active enough for him to still exist. He looked around as if seeking an escape, shedding silver skin that hit the floor and dissolved into powder. I shrugged off the power pack and dropped the rifle and approached the dissolving husk of a self-proclaimed god.
I knelt beside him. "Gee, Dave, not as smart as you thought you were, are you?" the metallic lips moved but no sound came out. I picked up a hand that had become detached and idly began snapping off the fingers in front of him.
"Some god. Too bad you forgot you were just a glorified computer. It's ironic, you know. If you had been content to stay organic you wouldn't be dying right now."
Sure I was cruel. I had killed innocents because of him. I was going to enjoy every second he had left. The surviving members of the assault team gathered around and watched the melodrama.
"And you were expecting some kind of fair fight," I continued. "We both know you were going to cheat. You hate losing but you enjoy saying you like challenges. You wanted me to play fair." I leaned closer until I was almost whispering in what was left of his ear. "Sorry to disappoint you but I gave up playing fair games a long time ago. I play to win. And now, you asshole, I am going to watch you die just like I had to watch others die."
He suddenly smiled and I almost jumped backwards in surprise. There was a whisper of air and then a quiet rattling as he struggled to form sounds. Finally I made out recognizable words.
"...world will...remember...programmed computer...hidden... make more robots...cause random changes...too late for you to stop... sucker..."
I screamed and brought down my foot on the head and ground it into dust.
"If your're watching this right now, unlikely though it is, you've won. And you probably thought it was all over and everything would go back to normal and all anyone would remember of old Doctor Weinberg was the crazy guy who tried to take over the world.
"Well, it ain't that easy.
"I've been busy. I've done things you might not find out about for years. But better yet, I've given the world the gift that keeps on giving.
"I've placed a few dozen computerized nanotechnology fabrication plants all over the world. Oh, you won't find them, let me assure you. But you'll notice them. They've been programmed to release my little silver clouds at random times in random places to do random things. You'd be amazed the things you can come up with when you can think at a few billion operations per second. It'll be decades before they'll start repeating.
"Now this might seem selfish of me but, hey, I don't hold grudges. You might have killed me but I'll still be a nice guy and spread my happiness around the world.
"Have a nice life."
Before he could start that damnable giggling I turned off the monitor. Laforge looked at me with a resigned expression. I pulled the tape from the VCR and tossed it on the table.
"Broadcast on every concievable frequency the moment I killed him. They estimate four billion people caught the message." I indicated the pile of reports. "A cruise ship was attacked and the passengers and crew turned into seals. A crowd at a soccer game in Bolivia became mobile humanoid plants. A Serbian battalion in Bosnia were changed into teenaged girls who think they are cheerleaders. Not to mention what happened in Washington..."
"Don't bring that up. I had a hard enough time to convince the Secret Service that they looked like jackasses but they still were mostly human. You'd think standing on their hind legs and smoking was the first indication."
I sat on the table and sighed. "You realize that this will change everything."
"To put it mildly."
"Remember the good old days when all we had to worry about were terrorists and the odd alien landing? Now we have to worry about being changed into something else every other day."
"Speaking of which, I have to hop a flight to New York."
"So how does it feel to be in charge of the UN Special Commission on Transformation Management?"
"I liked it better when we had the terrorists and the alien landings." Laforge picked up his briefcase and arranged his dress cap neatly on his head. "So what are you going to do since Event Horizon is officially shut down?"
I shrugged. I considered making a comment about a career change but it didn't seem that funny anymore.
The Silver Cloud copyright 1997 by Keith Morrison.
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